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The First New York Anime Film Festival

Three days of new Japanimation and special guests.

By Steve Fritz     October 19, 2000

DAY ONE: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 6

The first ever New York Anime Film Festival started ominously enough. The opening night was set in the city's Japan House, a center dedicated to Sino-American cross-cultural exchange located within eyesight of the United Nations. Considering the subject matter, this seemed like a good idea. But what no one was anticipated was what seemed like New York's entire population of Palestinians descending on U.N. Plaza to protest the current state of Israel. This meant the NYPD had the entire U.N. complex blocked off for blocks upon blocks...including Japan House.

Try explaining to New York's Finest that you wanted to cross their barricades in order to attend a film festival some time. It seems that if you get enough otakus together in New York, even the local constabulary gets the message. The Fest started. A tad late but still, it started.

The event opened with a speech by Beth Nissen, a correspondent of CNN and a recipient of a Fellow Scholarship from the Japan House. She was actually sent to Japan to interview and study anime. Toting a giant stuffed Pikachu in her arms, Nissen started her address with more than a dash of ostentation. 'If anime has a problem these days,' she declared, 'it's that it's getting 'pikachu-ed' and its vacuous clones need to Digivolve.'

All right. While the Palestinian demonstration may not have really set the tone of this Fest, Nissen's first comments did. The first New York Anime Film Festival was not going to cover the more 'kid-vid' element of anime, which Nissen claimed was only 10% of the industry's output. It was going to focus on more of the higher art elements. There would be no masquerade ball or dealer room. There would be lots of panels and even more films. Genki was at an absolute minimum.

'This is a film festival, not a convention,' one fanboy put it. But the truth is the other major animated film festival in Gotham, the New York Children's International Film Festival, at least offered food and drink stands. As will be explained later, this fest could have used a bit of that.

After her introductory spiel, Nissen introduced the first true celebrity of the night, director Kunihiko Ikuhara. Best known domestically as the man behind the SAILOR MOON series, he was here to introduce his latest movie, THE ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA (1999). In black turtleneck and vest along with gray snakeskin boots and pants, Ikuhara wasn't hard to miss. If only his answers to Nissen's questions were equally as memorable.

Ikuhara spoke slowly, chose his words carefully, and generally ducked just about any question Nissen asked through coy and pat responses. A query about how all his male characters appear to be somewhat feminine was answered with the statement, 'I just don't like to draw guys with muscles.'

Screening: The Adolescence of Utena

The good news is that, however disappointing Ikuhara himself ended up being, THE ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA more than made up for it. An alternate take of Ikuhara's TV series REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA, the movie takes place in a city made of Escher-like hallways, soaring towers and flying platforms, oft-time filled with red roses. It starts off in a school with Tenjo Utena masquerading as a boy or 'prince,' trying to uncover the location of her ex-lover Tonga Kiryuu. All the top students of this school have two things in common. They all sport a ring with a rose emblem on it, and they all fence.

Life gets interesting when Utena learns that the champion fencer also gets a particularly attractive female, Anthy (a.k.a. The Rose Bride), to do whatever he/she wants. To complicate the plot, when Utena does meet Anthy and the current fencing champion, his treatment of both of them so incenses her that she turns around and defeats him in a duel. Now the new fencing champion Tenjo finds himself the reluctant 'owner' of Anthy, and the Rose Bride is more than hot for her new champion to perform all his husbandly duties. Utena, of course, only has eyes for Tonga. What Utena also doesn't know is Tonga also isn't quite all he appears. To make matters even more interesting, whoever 'possesses' the Rose Bride also has the power to 'revolutionize' this world. As one can imagine, there are forces inside the school who don't want to know about revolution under any circumstance.

In a sense, one can understand why Ikuhara didn't want to do too much explaining about his movie. The film is a highly surreal affair; as such past masters as Jodorowsky and Bunuel could tell you, explaining the thought behind the movie only shatters whatever symbolism viewers could extract from it on their own.

THE ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA is not your straight-ahead anime feature. Beautifully rendered with outstanding backdrops, attractive characters and an incredibly rich color palette, the film follows its own internal logic smoothly and reaches an equally startling, yet satisfying, conclusion.

That doesn't mean your average otaku is going to get this. Then again, I doubt the average anime fanboy has the patience to sit in a theatre and watch EL TOPO or THE DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, either. I'm not ready to put ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA quite up there with those cinematic surrealistic manifestos, but I'd put it nearby.

It was an interesting way to start off the Fest, that's for sure.

DAY TWO: SATURDAY, OCTOBER 7

On the second day, the Fest was moved from Japan House to the Director's Guild of America's (DGA) Theatre. Located just off of Central Park, this is a highly comfortable little, two-level film house with a downstairs lounge and easy access to a number of restaurants that dot midtown Manhattan. Oddly enough, the NYPD were also out in full force, only for different reasons. It seems that Saturday was also the day of the Hispanic Day Parade, one of the largest parades in a city that seems to have one every couple of weeks. This time the tension wasn't anywhere as high as the previous evening. Getting to the DGA was a lot easier, even if there were parade barricades all over the place.

Screening: Blood, Part 1

After another introduction by Nissen and some members of Sci-Fi.Com, the event led off with BLOOD, PART 1. Barely an hour, BLOOD is more like a television series than a movie. It revolves around a vampire hunter named Saya, who (one quickly figures) is a lot older than she appears. Her main companions are two American secret service types, one white, and the other black. Like MEN IN BLACK, the white one appears to have been cut from the been-there-done-that type while the black agent is the rookie. Another important point to mention is the film appears to be set around the time of the Viet Nam War.

After Saya makes quick work of a vampire in a subway train, she's assigned to an American school just off of a military base. Her only concern is that her sword appears to be on its last legs and she desperately needs a new one. To complicate matters, the agents' intelligence doesn't warn her that instead of one vampire hiding inside the school, there are a lot more. If that isn't enough, there's a kindly but meddling nurse who will wind up in the middle of the inevitable melee.

BLOOD borrows heavily from THE X-FILES. It soon becomes apparent the general public isn't aware of these vampiresor Sayain their midst, and those in the know want to keep it that way. Another important point is that Saya is 'the last of the originals' (to quote the white agent), but that isn't explored. Putting that criticism aside, BLOOD is loaded with high-octane fight sequences and some seriously guttural horror. While this story could make a viciously good live action show, it doesn't from being handled in animation. It was a good way to start off the second day.

Screening: The Aurora

From there we quickly went on to the second film, THE AURORA. All 3-D CGI, it was probably the weakest entry of the entire selection. For starters, when compared to other all-CGI efforts, the animation on this film looked incredibly poor by comparison. A sci-fi spectacular, the fundamental plot line is about an undersea oil drilling operation that cracks the earth's mantle in order to find the fuel. The drilling operation also unleashes a deadly form of bacteria that glows in the ocean much like the Aurora Borealis and explodes if it rises to the surface. To make matters complete, it not only can eat just about any metal with which it comes into contact; it can also, if enough of it cuts loose into the ocean, destabilize the oxygen-to-carbon dioxide levels of the Earth, killing all known life on it.

The animation was honestly painful. All the characters walked around with such bended knees that one wonders if long-term underwater explorations gives everybody the rickets. To top it, their movements were so stiff it suggested the old Super Gerrianimation shows of the '60s. The best laugh gotten during the entire screening was when I cut loose with the line 'Thunderbirds are Go! F.A.B.' It also didn't help that the movie borrowed heavily and poorly from such films as James Cameron's THE ABYSS.

The good news was the Fest never sunk so low again.

Screening: Escaflowne: The Girl from Gaia

The first half of the Saturday sessions ended on a high note, with the film ESCAFLOWNE: THE GIRL FROM GAIA. Like THE ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA, this is a full-feature adaptation of the ESCAFLOWNE television series, currently airing on Fox Kids. Also like UTENA, this version of ESCAFLOWNE may have employed many of the same characters, but then took a lot of liberties with the plot, basically winding up with an alternative version. Given my druthers, I prefer the television version. While the movie did have a higher caliber of animation overall, the TV series has a much deeper plot. The episodic element of the TV series also gives the series a lot more depth. Still, GIRL FROM GAIA is worth a gander.

After a 45-minute break for a quick meal, the second Saturday session was off and running. The guest of honor this time was Yoshitaka Amano. He brought along a special friend of his, Neil Gaiman. It soon became apparent that a lot of anime lovers also read Gaiman's Sandman series; the Fest's organizers had to set up a special table for fans to get autographs from both artists. The line easily went over 200 fans, and this was in a 600-capacity theatre.

Screening: 1001 Nights

From there, the Fest went on to screen Amano's short film 1001 NIGHTS. For those unaware of the film, it was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, who had asked composer David Newman and Amano to create this unique piece. Newman scored a 20-minute musical piece that shows a strong influence of Mussorgsky, Ravel, Berlioz and other 'fantastic' classical composers. Amano then applied a number of different anime techniques to 'choreograph an animated ballet' based on the music. The film's 'plot' revolves around two lovers who only meet in their dreams. Both inhabitants of an incredible dream-like planet, the hero then must overcome all manners of phantasmagorical obstacles (both 'real and dream') in order to meet his lover in the flesh.

Amano utilized a wide range of animation techniques to deliver this story, with the all-instrumental Newman score as the accompaniment. They ranged from a proper use of 3-D CGI, to watercolors and tempura on film, to paper cutouts, among many others. It had been shown only once before in New York City, when Amano staged a huge exhibition of his work at a church in SoHo. But that time it was shown on a huge video screen, not as a film. The difference is, pardon the pun, day and night. As Gaiman would point out to me after the screening, the depth of the film print was startling compared to the original showing. It became another highlight of the series for me.

Screening: A*L*I*CE*

From there, the second all CGI film, A*LI*CE was screened. The overall level of animation was vastly superior to THE AURORA, but still suffered when compared to the likes of the TOY STORY movies or even the BEAST MACHINES: TRANSFORMERS series. On the other hand, the plot was a heck of a lot betteressentially a time-travel story, in which the world is ruled by a mad young man named Nero and his supercomputer. A liberation army develops a time machine and kidnaps his mother, an astronaut named Alice, when her space shuttle was just about to crash into the ocean. The idea was that by taking her at that time, she would not meet her eventual husband and, consequently, not give birth to Nero. Well, things went on as they always did, leaving the army with only one possible solution, killing her before she gives birth to Nero. Enter a young hero and a perky and sexy android to help save the day.

This brings probably my biggest criticism of the entire event. Remember I said there was very little time given to more typical fan-oriented entertainment such as convention room, dealer tables and the likes. It was strictly films, panels, and then more films and panels. The DGA is also an exceedingly comfortable theatre, with great seats and a cozy, dark atmosphere.

I don't know when I fell asleep but I do remember being shaken awake. I supposed the fans would have let me continued sleeping except I started snoring. Understandably, that kind of criticism just can't be tolerated at any film fest. Still, I had just endured over eight hours of solid movies without any real break. My body just decided that it needed a break of its own.

While a panel was held shortly thereafter (featuring Amano, Gaiman, Ikuhara and Peter Chung), it soon became obvious that the final panel of the day was going to put me to sleep even faster than the film, A*LI*CE. That said, as soon as the panel was over I decided it would be smart to duck the final film, Amano's VAMPIRE HUNTER D and get some Z's.

DAY THREE: SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8

For once the police were nowhere to be seen. I had an easy way making it to the DGA Theatre. No demonstrations, no parades. Of course, New York was setting up for its biggest parade, the Columbus Day, but that wouldn't be until Monday. Still, the NYPD decided it would be wise to leave their various barricades on the streets as a reminder of things to come.

Screening: Jin-Roh

The final day of the fest started off with another highlight of the series, JIN-ROH. The film is set in the 1960s; only it assumes that the Axis powers won World War II instead of the Allies. It's implied that after the war, the Nazis then turned around and took over Japan, as all the technology and the soldiers bear a very Germanic flavor.

That doesn't mean the Japanese public like their current rulers. In fact, the film rapidly establishes the anti-establishment forces are as extreme as their overlords. Among the liberation forces are a series of young girls called Red Riding Hoods, who will blow themselves upwith explosives in their pursesrather than be captured.

Enter one elite soldier of a paramilitary organization called the Wolf Corp. While a riot is going on above them, the Wolf Corp. is patrolling Tokyo's sewer system, slaughtering all resistance fighters they come upon. Our hero comes across a Red Riding Hood, who tries to take both of them out the only way she knows how. While physically he's unscathed, the sight of a pre-teen blowing herself up in front of him causes deeper scars than he can imagine.

The incident is leaked to the press. The regular Tokyo police were not in on this sewer sweep, and are bringing all manner of political hell on earth on the soldier. Complicating matters even further, the Riding Hood's sister makes herself known to the soldier and they fall in love with each other.

JIN-ROH (literally 'Man-Oaf' or 'Man-Wolf') probably would have made an incredible live action film. As it stands, it's thick with political intrigue, double and triple-crosses, a pervasive noir atmosphere normally reserved for detective films, and an ending so explosive in its own way that this film would be an Oscar contender if made domestically in live action.

It's still a kick in the gut no matter what format it's in. Personally, I found it to be one of the best offerings this Fest had.

Screenings: More BLOOD, Followed by SPRIGGEN and ALEXANDER

After the kick in the head that was JIN-ROH, a documentary about the making of BLOOD and another film called SPRIGGEN were anti-climatic. The BLOOD documentary was seriously hindered as it was completely in Japanese without any subtitles, leaving English-speakers totally in the dark. SPRIGGEN was a fun super-soldier potboiler with nice effects and some interesting ideas. Still, there was no way it could match what came before.

The entire Fest ended on a strong note. It concluded with four chapters of ALEXANDER, the latest work of Peter Chung, best known for his work on such TV shows as AEON FLUX and PHANTOM 2020. The episodes shown displayed that Chung hadn't lost one ounce of his unique animation magic. At its core, ALEXANDER retells the history of Alexander The Great; only it contains a number of twists that are uniquely Chung. The animator contributed only character and set designs for this 13-part series, and it didn't suffer from it. If anything, the fact there was a strong scriptwriter and director involved only seemed to help. I left the Fest wanting to see more of ALEXANDER, and it was a great note on which to end.

Follow-up calls have uncovered that the entire event was a total success as far as Sci-Fi.Com was concerned. They are planning another one for a similar time next year. I'm glad. It's nice to see such a fest here in Gotham. Let's hope they do some things to improve the environment. If they do, it can be one heck of a great event every year.

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